Friday, October 7, 2011

Blu-ray Review: THE FUNHOUSE (1981)


LABEL: Arrow Video
RATING: 15 Certificate
DURATION: 95 mins
AUDIO: DTS 2.0 Stereo with English subtitles
VIDEO: 16:9 Widescreen (2.35:1)
DIRECTOR: Tobe Hooper
CAST: Elizabeth Berridge, Shawn Carson, Miles Chapin, Jeanne Austin

TAGLINE: Something is alive in The Funhouse!

Filmmaker Tobe Hooper burst onto the scene in a big bad way with the lo-fi grinder THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), a film that to this day punches me in the gut everytime I watch it. His next film, the EC Comics-esque EATEN ALIVE (1974), featured veteran actor Neville Brand (STALAG 17) in a nutty powerhouse performance feeding guests of his dilapidated motel to a flesh-starved gator. Next came the creepy TV mini-series adaptation of Stephen King's SALEM'S LOT (1979). His star was on the rise but before being tapped by Stephen Spielberg for POLTERGEIST (1982) he would direct the carnie-slasher THE FUNHOUSE (1981) released in a year rife with slashers following the one, two punch of John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN (1978) and Sean Cunningham's FRIDAY THE 13th (1980). In '81 alone we saw THE BURNING, THE PROWLER, FRIDAY THE 13th Pt. 2, HALLOWEEN II, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME and MY BLOODY VALENTINE at the cineplex, can there be any doubt it was the greatest year of slashers ever?

A killer in a creepy clown mask stalks a young woman through a house, the POV through the mask's eyelets is a fun nod to Carpenter's HALLOWEEN, the killer creeps into the bathroom, rips open the shower curtain and knifes a very naked Amy (Elizabeth Berridge, AMADEUS), she lets loose a blood curdling scream but comes to realize the weapon is made of rubber and the assailant is actually her bratty brother Joey (Shawn Carson, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES). The scene pays homage to Carpenter's seminal slasher up front and rolls right into a scenario that smacks of Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960) in the most deliberate.

Later that night Amy is picked up by gas pumpin' stud Buzz (Cooper Huckabee, THE CURSE), the two are shortly joined by her friend Liz (Largo Woodruff, THE LADIES CLUB) and wise cracking date Richie (Miles Chapin, HOWARD THE DUCK). The foursome drive to a travelling fun fair that's set-up camp just outside of town. Amy's wanna-be Michael Meyers siblings sneaks out of the house mere moments later and hoofs it on foot to the carnival, too. While en route a stranger in a pick-up truck pulls up alongside him, points a shotgun out the window, laughs and drives off, nothing comes of it but it's pretty weird.

At the carnival the teens enjoy the usual array of carnival rides, visit a disturbing animal freak-show and attend a magic act featuring Marco the Magnificent (William Finley, SISTERS) who drives a wooden stake through the heart of a "volunteer" from the audience, it's a great 70's styled carnival and you can almost smell the popcorn and cotton candy as the demented circus tunes fill your ears. Later the teens visit fortune teller Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles, THE SENTINEL) who offers Amy a reading but the gypsy does not take kindly to the groups snickering and angrily chases them off. Afterwards the group overhear the creepy intonations of carnival barker Conrad (Kevin Conway, FUNNY FARM) "...who will dare face the challenge of the Funhouse? Who is mad enough to enter that world of darkness? How about you, sir?" daring people to enter the dark attraction. Game for a cheap thrill the group enter the funhouse and are seated in their ride car by the carnie's son Gunther (Wayne Doba), a freaky weirdo decked out in a classic Universal Frankenstein's monster mask. Once inside the girls scream with delight at the myriad of cheap frights, it's a pretty fantastic ride with all manner of cheesy spooks and gaudy goblins.

Afterwards Richie dares everyone to spend the night inside the funhouse which they agree to do. Grabbing one of the last cars of the night they jump from the ride while inside and lay low until the carnival closes for the night. Outside the funhouse Amy's brother Joey sees the group enter the funhouse but not exit. Alarmed he stays behind prowling the carnival grounds waiting for the teens to emerge. While wondering the littered fairway he gets the bejeezus scared outta him by a eerie bag lady (Sonia Zomina, EYES OF S STRANGER) who appears throughout the film uttering oddities not unlike old Crazy Ralph from FRIDAY THE 13th. After a pretty great set-up of his character it's disappointing that Joey's plot line really doesn't go anywhere and I think it could have made for a fun subplot or another film unto itself, but as it is it just felt unfinished and kind of fizzles out.

Amy and the three teens inside the funhouse get to some heavy petting amongst the spooktacular props and macabre mannequins until they hear a commotion from a room below them. Peering through the floorboards they observe Gunther making a pay-to-cum proposition with Madame Zena, that horny old gypsy. The two lay on the floor as the fortune teller gives him a hand-job until he squirts a creamy salvo mere seconds later. Wiping her hands on a bed sheet Madame Zena attempts to leave when the disgruntled Gunther demands a refund. When she refuses and further threatens to tell his father he murders the woman in a violent rage, knocking her into an fuse box electrocuting her.

Stunned by what they've witnessed the foursome quietly attempt to flee but find they are locked in for the night. While looking for an alternate exit Richie steals money from a strongbox and with no escape found they return to their previous place of hiding. Shortly after Gunther and his father return to the scene of the crime. The creepy carnie's not so much upset that his son's killed someone as he is that it was a carnie and not a local. Conrad devises a plan to blame the death on the locals when he discovers that the money is missing. Assuming that his son has taken the money the father berates the freakish boy until he starts to punch himself in the head repeatedly. Having been worked up into a frenzy Gunther pulls off his mask revealing a seriously fucked-up face that that is a call back to the freakshow the teens visited earlier, also recalling the vicious creature-child Petau from Dario Argento's PHENOMENA (1985) with the addition of ruby red eyes and sharp claws, very decent make-up effects from Craig Reardon (POLTERGEIST). Startled by the disturbing sight Richie accidentally drops a lighter through the floorboards alerting the carnie that prying eyes are upon them, which leads to father and son stalking the nosey teens through the funhouse and killing them one by one.

The first 2/3rd of the film is a pretty fantatstic, well-executed haunted house flick set at the carnival, it's a spooky setting populated by some creepy carnies with impressive set design from Morton Rabinowittz (SALEM'S LOT) and cinematography from Andrew Laslo (THE WARRIORS) which completely sell the film's candy-colored creepiness. The final sequence plays out as more a streamlined formulaic slasher with our final girl Amy, a whimpering mess, is pursued through the funhouse's more and more labyrinthine inner workings by an enraged Gunther with a satisfying final confrontation followed by a fun coda just outside the funhouse.

In 1981 slashers were ramping up the elaborate gore effects but Hooper's THE FUNHOUSE is an oddity in that respect in that he's content to offer up an old school fright film steeped with atmosphere, dread and well-crafted scares. I think this is one of Hooper's most well-directed films and at times it really does feel like a classic Universal horror film, fun stuff. Our four teens are a fun bunch too, Amy being particularly sympathetic.

THE FUNHOUSE is a fantastically entertaining flick that definitely doesn't get it's due, it deserves better and would make for a great Halloween watch this year. If you haven't seen this one you need to jump on it right away and if you're a fan Arrow's Blu-ray is a must-buy.

BLU-RAY: Tobe Hooper's THE FUNHOUSE gets a brand new HD transfer presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) in gorgeous 1080p. The film has NEVER looked better. There's a lot of soft focus cinematography and intended blurring along the edges of frame and as such is not the most stunning, finely detailed Blu-ray presentation you've ever seen but it's sourced from an excellent print with only the most minor of nicks and scratches. The candy-colored visuals are vibrant, black levels are quite good and the film's grain structure is nicely intact. 

Audio consists of a lossy DTS 2.0 stereo track that puts forth dialogue, effects and score in a nicely balanced presentation with optional English subtitles. While the audio sounds quite good a losses DTS-HD track would have preferable and I couldn't help but want for a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround presentation. I'm not one to demand every Blu-ray throw in an unwarranted surround mix but the carnival setting and the funhouse in particular really could have benefited from some action in the surrounds.

Now we get to the meat and potatoes of this fine release, the bonus content. At least here in the US the film has languished on a bare bones DVD and  Arrow give us not just one, but three commentaries. First is a track from S/FX creator Craig Reardon and Jeffrey Reddick, the latter who created the entertaining THE FINAL DESTINATION films. The second commentary comes from producer Derek Power and film scholar Howard S. Berger. A third commentary features Arrow familiar Calum Waddell and Justin Kerswell, the author of TEENAGE WASTELAND plus the webmaster of the HYSTERIA LIVES website dedicated to all things slasher cinema. Kerswell also co-hosts the terrific HYSTERIA CONTINUES podcast which I just can't say enough great things about, if you love slashers you need to check it out. Informative, entertaining and filled with adoration, fun commentaries. A Tobe Hopper commentary would've been completest but if you've heard the man speak it can be a chore to sit through, no disrespect to the filmmaker, but his monotone commentaries aren't exactly enthralling. Besides, if you wanna hear Hooper discuss the film there's an interview and a Q+A on this set.

Carnage at the Carnival: Tobe Hooper Remembers ‘The Funhouse’ (16:25) wherein the auteur recalls creating the film, setting up the carnival on the Universal back lot, the hand-job scene, the bag lady and mention of the video nasties and the long rumored Eli Roth remake.

Master Class of Horror: Mick Garris (12:55) features the MASTERS OF HORROR series creator reflecting on Hooper's career while also shoeing in his own struggles with creative freedom.

Miles of Mayhem: Acting in Tobe’s Funhouse with star Miles Chapin (21:12) is a fun interview with actor Miles Chapin who portrayed Richie in the film, a character the actor points out is at fault for a lot of what happens in the film. He reflects on working with Hooper, being on the Universal back lot, working with actress Largo Woodruff and actor Wayne Doba and a malfunctioning harness that could have been the end of him.

Trilogy of Terror: The Make-up Madness of Craig Reardon (15:53) features the S/FX creator reflecting on his collaborations with Tobe Hooper from being a titty make-up applicator on EATEN ALIVE, working for S/FX legend Rick Baker on THE FUNHOUSE and being on the set of POLTERGEIST. Reardon does mention that Stephen Spielberg was on set A LOT but doesn't fully commit to imply he was calling the shots.  

Live Q+A with Tobe Hooper from San Francisco (20:43) was filmed in San Francisco and moderated by Calum Waddell. It's of very poor quality and features Hooper going on about THE TOOLBOX MURDERS, TCM2 and the possibility of a sequel to THE FUNHOUSE and touching again on the video nasties. It's not a bad watch but the audio/video quality is sub par making it difficult to sit through.

Never before seen behind the scenes photographs from the collection of Craig Reardon (6:43) is a slide show of Reardon's behind-the-scene photos mostly featuring his effects work set to the John Beal score from the film.  

Packaging extras begin with four reversible sleeve art options including newly commissioned artwork from Arrow artist extraordinaire Rick Melton who offers up a fantastic panel that really captures the essence of the film, with three alternate panels featuring theatrical one sheets. We also get a two-sided fold-out poster featuring the Melton artwork with a version of the  American one sheet on the flip side and a 16 page collectible booklet with new writing on the film from author and film critic Kim Newman plus it reprints eight lobby cards and the Japanese theatrical poster. Arrow's affectionate deluxe edition is a sweet release and at this point is in the running for release of the year, a Blu-ray essential and a slasher classic.

VERDICT: I'm of the opinion that Hooper's really lost his way the past two decades but from '74-'86 he cranked out a winning series of grindhouse, cult and sci-fi films ending with THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 and I highly recommend you check 'em out. Arrow Video have really done right by the film with a sweet 1080p HD transfer and some equally fantastic bonus content. Alright Arrow Video, listen up, we need to see Tobe Hooper's stunning space-vampire film LIFEFORCE (1985) get the deluxe 1080p treatment - let's make that happen, shall we?